Under first-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the Tiger offense is not just one of the best in the Southeastern Conference, but the entire country.
Through seven games, Auburn’s offensive average of 464.86 yards per game ranks eighth in the NCAA. Yet, unlike the majority of spread attacks, the Tigers like to keep the ball on the ground.
Malzahn, a no-huddle philosopher who helped construct the Wildcat offense at Arkansas, has the AU rushing attack averaging 247.29 yards per game, which ranks seventh in the NCAA. The passing attack, led by Chris Todd, averages just over 217 yards per game, which ranks 60th in the NCAA.
“It is a great scheme,” said LSU head coach Les Miles. “They are second in scoring, and they rush the football for 240-plus a game with two tremendously talented tailbacks.”
Ben Tate, a 5-foot-11, 218-pound senior, leads the team with 856 yards and five touchdowns on 150 carries. Onterio McCalebb, a 5-foot-10, 164-pound freshman, has rushed for 461 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries.
For any defense, preparing for the option – especially a two-headed rushing attack like Auburn’s - is going to be a task.
“There are so many more assignments, so you have to be on top of your stuff,” said LSU strong safety Brandon Taylor. “Against Auburn, it will be about stopping the run and then the pass.”
That is a change of pace for Malzahn, who is coming off two seasons at Tulsa where he relied on the passing game to help turn the Golden Hurricanes offense into the most prolific unit in the country. In both 2007 and 2008, Tulsa was ranked in the top 10 in passing.
That is not the case at Auburn, where Malzahn is putting his faith in a run-dominant spread attack.
From where LSU stands, that might not be a bad thing.
The Tiger defense has held opponents to an average of just under 130 rushing yards per game. For the players in purple and gold, having an opponent line up and attempt to run the football is almost like asking for trouble.
“That is where we are at our best,” said linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. “I like the power, and I don’t mind lining up. We can get back to basic football, which is what I have been doing my whole life.
“The whole defense is ready. We just have to read our keys and make sure everyone is on the same page.”
For Sheppard, the new-look AU offense is not a far cry from the one of old, just a little more creative.
“Auburn has always been a downhill, smash-mouth football team,” he said. “But, they have taken that and expanded it with the misdirection and things like that. They are more of a power-spread team, not a finesse team like [Florida].
“Auburn is going to be downfield trying to hit you.”
The key to the game will be the battle up front. Can the Tiger defensive line, which has fought off depth issues all season, stand up and make the call?
“It all starts with the defensive line,” he said. “With our tackles, you have to double team them. The double team will have to stay on the guy rather than rub them, and that allows us to float around and move to the ball easier.”
One glaring mark from the AU offense has been their ability to protect the passer, having allowed just five sacks through seven games.
LSU is on the other end of the spectrum, having recorded just five sacks through six games.
On Saturday night, one of the two must give. For now, Miles is not making too much of the stat lines.
“The reason so few people get to them is the style of passing that they do,” he said. “They move the pocket and get on the run. If they sit, our guys will be in there quickly.
“Our team will pressure them as much as anyone, but I don’t think that is as key in a game like this as you would think.”
The task of slowing Malzahn will be on another first-year coordinator, LSU’s John Chavis. According to Sheppard, the Tiger defensive coordinator has hit the film room hard during the bye week.
“Auburn has the talent and the offense in place, so that is one reason that coach is really fired up,” he said.
Having Chavis prepare the team with what he sees has the unit playing at a completely new pace from year’s past, which means the LSU defense should be more than prepared.
“Coach makes sure that we understand, and we never go on to something else until he knows we are ready,” Sheppard said. “I have seen so many plays these past couple of days of watching film where they do reverses … so, we will have to read the offensive line, and they will take you to the play.
“Everyone just has to stay with their assignments.”